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Selected Verse of Emile Nelligan, translated by Ian Allaby

Ian Allaby’s translation and commentary of Selected Verse of Emile Nelligan will not only prove useful to students of literature, but will be of interest to all readers and writers of poetry. Well-written and organized in a relevant manner, the translation provides an engaging opportunity to access Nelligan’s best poems in English, complete with explanatory notes and Allaby’s adept analysis of Nelligan’s words.

This highly recommended book brings insight to the life and time period of esteemed late 19th century Quebec poet, Nelligan, illustrating the experiences that influenced his creative works. In the introduction, Allaby provides background information about the poet, with an intriguing chronicle of Nelligan’s tragic descent into mental illness early in life. He depicts him as an extraordinarily accomplished young poet, who despite having dropped out of school, demonstrated a vast general knowledge and understanding of myths and legends, history and politics, along with an appreciation of creative artists in varied fields. The introduction offers a historical perspective of social norms at the time, along with a glimpse into the literary society of late 19th century Quebec. Included is a section in which Allaby handles the controversy surrounding Nelligan’s sexuality and religious beliefs; as well, Allaby addresses and negates allegations that Nelligan’s poetry may not have been original or all his own work.

The meat of the book contains a well-chosen selection of poems depicting Nelligan’s life and the influences that guided his work. Nature, religion, society, art, music, writing – all these figure prominently in his poetry. Nelligan’s inheritance of his mother’s musical aptitude comes through in his rondels and sonnets. But what stands out is the repeated allusion to unrequited and unattainable love, which ultimately leads him down a desperate path. The poem, How Sad is October, is a sudden break from the pastoral poetry preceding it, describing Nelligan’s depth of sadness at the loss of a loved one.

Allaby’s ordering of the poems creates a picture of Nelligan, a sort of chronological presentation of a poet in pain. As Allaby navigates the reader through this series of poems, he draws comparisons between them, analysing their connection to nature, Nelligan’s mother, his lack of reciprocated love, and a general sadness and disappointment with this world. Along with an educated interpretation of Nelligan’s poems, from a comparison of the pastoral beauty of the countryside to the filth of city, to the exposition of the internal struggle within Nelligan, including suicidal thoughts and his grief over love lost, the book offers an informative study of forms and elements of poetry from an earlier time.

According to Allaby, Nelligan’s poetry is considered modern in content, while traditional in its form. Allaby’s quick lesson in traditional poetry, such as rondels and sonnets, makes these forms accessible to readers of today’s free verse and prose poems. Attention is drawn to rhyming scheme, rhythm, metre, and patterns, as well as content.

Allaby discusses the rise of symbolism as evidenced in Nelligan’s works; in particular, the physical colour of darkness relates to his state of mind. A distinct line is drawn between Nelligan’s happier poems and his melancholy, with Wine Song (in which he is drunk with false happiness) adroitly leading to poems of despondency and madness, reflecting Nelligan’s inner demons. The young poet speaks of his desire to become mad in I Want to Lose Myself, and confides his thoughts of suicide and a self-diagnosis of mental illness in Ship of Gold.

Allaby paints a vivid portrait of the Quebec prodigy, Nelligan, a young man tormented by life, who eloquently articulates his pain as a gifted poet. If you are a lover of poetry, put Selected Verse of Emile Nelligan, a collection that will touch your heart, on your reading list.

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